Russia said on Wednesday it would resume coal supplies to Ukraine a day after power was restored to the Crimean Peninsula it annexed last year.
“In principle, these supplies are not really needed now,” Russia’s Vladimir Putin told his ministers in Moscow. “But our Ukrainian partners have resumed supply. So be it. In response, we need to resume our coal supplies to Ukraine.”
Commentators who try to explain Russia’s invasion of the Crimea are right to point out the former superpower’s many grievances. But those should be not mistaken for a justification of its actions.
Russia moved troops into the Crimean Peninsula, which headquarters its Black Sea Fleet, late last month, when the country’s relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed after months of protests against his decision to pull out of an associated agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with Russia.
The move — which Western leaders have rightly condemned as a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and Russia’s own treaty obligation to it — follows two decades of perceived Russian humiliation by the West. As Russia saw it, Ukraine was but the latest of former satellite states the West tried to snatch from under its nose.
Writing in The New York Times, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist, explains, “The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” Whereas Russia — grudgingly — tolerated NATO’s expansion into its former Soviet sphere after the end of the Cold War in 1991, he believes it drew a line in the sand when the alliance considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine in 2008.
Drawing on Mearsheimer’s analysis, Tom Switzer, who is a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, argues that the West “provoked” Russia by leaving open the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and that its response to alleged Western meddling in Ukraine is both rational and “understandable.”
Pat Buchanan, a former Republican Party presidential candidate and conservative commentator, is even more sympathetic to Russia’s motives. He predicts at his blog that future historians “will as surely point to the Bushes and Clintons who shoved NATO into Moscow’s face” if there is to be a second Cold War. (The first NATO expansion following the Soviet Union’s collapse came with Germany’s reunification when George H.W. Bush was president; the second under Bill Clinton; the third under George W. Bush.)
What the West should do, according to Mearsheimer, is not oppose Russia’s blatant invasion of a neighboring country, and what appears an attempt to annex part of it, but “emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev.”
There is truth in what Buchanan, Mearsheimer, Switzer and others — including Stephen F. Cohen writing in The Nation, The New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman and the Daily Mail‘s Peter Hitchens — have argued. Russia does mistrust the West’s motives and sees the gradual eastward expansion of the European Union and NATO as a threat to its security. But this does not justify Russia’s behavior.
For one thing, Cathy Young writes in Time magazine, the West also made efforts to comfort Russia. It provided $55 billion in aid for its economic reconstruction between 1992 and 1997 alone. Russia was invited to the club of top industrialized nations, which became the G8. It was included in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and a NATO-Russia Council was founded in 2002 to facilitate security cooperation.
NATO did expand but so what? If Russia ever expected an attack from the West once the Cold War had ended, this was surely paranoia. Russia’s “humiliation” had far more to do with its own misguided experiment in communism than the liberation of Central and Eastern European nations from communism’s embrace.
Sadly, this paranoia is real and many, if not most, Russians have yet to come to terms with their loss of empire, evidenced in their continued admiration for tyrannical leaders from the past and willingness to believe that whatever ails their country is the result of foreign plots.
Western leaders would be wise to take this, far from rational, Russian mindset into account when dealing with the country. But that is not to say they should attempt appeasement.
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues in The American Interest against letting Vladimir Putin get away with annexing the Crimea. Western inaction in Ukraine would follow Western inaction in 2008 when Russia virtually annexed Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — which, like the Crimea, are home to ethnic Russian majorities — and not only validate the recreation of a Russian sphere of influence but the reintroduced of a “doctrine of interference” under the pretext of protecting Russian compatriots. She warns, “Since Russian speakers live in most of the newly independent states, this ‘doctrine’ threatens the stability of the entire post-Soviet space.”
Whatever Russia’s grievances, real or imagined, they are no justification for a return to an international order in which big states invade and carve up smaller ones simply because they can. In this sense, American secretary of state John Kerry’s exasperation — “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” he said on CBS News’ Face the Nation last week — was perfectly appropriate.
Now the United States and its allies just need to come up with a more powerful response.
If Russia annexes Ukraine’s Crimea, as the region’s parliament there says it wants it to, it could prove a costly enterprise with seemingly little benefit Russia does not already enjoy.
Lawmakers in the Black Sea region voted on Thursday to join the Russian Federation and promised to call a referendum on the Crimea’s status in ten days’ time.
Russian troops entered the peninsula in late February after Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed following months of protests against his decision to pull out of trade talks with the European Union and deepen relations with his country’s former Soviet master, Russia, instead. Read more “Annexing Crimea Could Prove Costly for Russia”
Media commentary in light of Russia’s recent actions in and around Ukraine’s Crimea for the most part avoids discussion of both the port of Sevastopol’s formal ownership, being leased by Russia until 2042, and Russia’s 2010 military doctrine, which gives it a mandate for operations when its citizens, assets or interests around the world are threatened. These are crucial factors to bear in mind when evaluating the evolving situation.
Sevastopol is the main commercial and military port of the Crimea and was the Soviet Union’s most important warm-water port, home to the Black Sea Fleet. Whoever controls the peninsula’s coastline and maintains a naval presence there has economic and political influence over the Crimea itself and acts as a gatekeeper to Ukrainian and Russian regions to the north and west.
Russia and Ukraine were both well aware of this following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Ukraine claimed the port of Sevastopol. Russia immediately issued a counterclaim for its possession, asserting that the whole Crimean Peninsula was historically a Russian Black Sea outpost.
In 1997, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement in Kharkiv under which they split the hard assets, specifically vessels and other platforms of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, fifty-fifty. Russia was also offered the option to purchase a large cut of Ukraine’s share. The Russian navy jumped on this opportunity and negotiated the transfer of additional vessels in exchange for natural gas and debt writeoffs for Ukraine.
The true desires of the states lay not in dividing fleet assets and ships but in controlling the Crimea, for historical, national and strategic reasons. Crimea’s littoral areas, coastline and ports, which provide unrestricted access to the Black Sea, and from there the Mediterranean and beyond, are the real strategic assets that Russia sought and still seeks to maintain.
By signing the 1997 Partition Treaty, Russia also obtained rights to lease the Sevastopol base and locales in the surrounding area, including Balaklava and other strategic littorals. These ports were to remain part of sovereign Ukraine for almost $98 million per year for twenty years, though Russia would be the rightful owner and user, under contract. While a steep strategic loss for Ukraine, it was a huge financial rehabilitation for the cash starved former Soviet republic, with Russia paying out via a redemption of Ukraine’s $3 billion gas debt.
According to Russia, the agreement also allowed for up to 25,000 Russian troops to be mobilized to the Crimea without prior Ukrainian notification or authorization.
In 2011, Russia renewed the lease on Sevastopol and surrounding areas for another 25 years. While Ukraine remains the sovereign landlord, Russia is the rightful tenant and in command of this prime beachfront property until 2042. At present, the ownership situation is not in dispute and is locked by contract.
Russia’s military doctrine
In 2000, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a revised military doctrine of the Russian Federation that granted the Russian military greater autonomy from a combat-operational perspective and restructured much of the command leadership to a presidential control system. The added title of “commander-in-chief of the armed forces” to the president’s, similar to the American executive model, demonstrated the change in chain of command, placing civilian control over military activities.
Most recently, an updated 2010 doctrine was approved by Dmitri Medvedev, then president, in an attempt to construct a more solid framework for army activities.
While Putin’s document came in the wake of Russian military activities in the Balkans and Chechnya, Medvedev’s 2010 update followed the 2008 war with Georgia. It embodies the contemporary outlook of Russian threat perception.
Most pertinent to the evolving situation in Crimea is that the 2010 doctrine includes numerous references to the use of Russian hard power outside Russia’s borders. It clearly indicates that Russian military forces can be deployed to protect Russian citizens, Russian-speaking peoples and interests abroad — all of which are present in the Crimea and Ukraine at large.
On top of this, it lists territorial disputes as a major threat along Russia’s frontiers, indicative in Russia’s classification of the current Crimean situation.
Russia relied on these combined rationales in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, as well as the language issue even more specifically at the outset of the unresolved, and now dubbed “frozen,” conflict in Transnistria, which began in 1992.
Today we again see this déjà vu rationale echoed as Russia seems to be readying troops to mitigate potential threats to the many Russian citizens, Russian speakers and Russian strategic interests in the Crimea.
Furthermore, the doctrine defines the Russian army’s obligations for low intensity conflict and peacekeeping. It indicates that the Russian military can be deployed to disengage opposing groups should such an operation be in the Russian national interest or in accordance with Collective Security Treaty Organization directives. This could include border dispute mediation, countersecessionist activities, counterterrorism operations and controlling mass disobedience. All of the above could be argued for in the case of Ukraine and the Crimea specifically.
Terrorism poses a chief threat to the Russian Federation and it is successfully spearheading numerous global and regional operations in this realm. The doctrine sets forth guidelines and plans to increase capabilities of special operations teams to identify, prevent, manage and recover from terrorist incidents, acts of sabotage and other irregular warfare activities.
Pro-Russian factions in the Crimea have formed what they describe as “anti-terrorist” groups. By introducing this label, it implies that terrorists may operate in the Crimea, further justifying Russia’s involvement. This shift in threat perception, from one of civil unrest to terrorism, fits snuggly under Russia’s umbrella objective of meeting threats posed by armed groups operating within its borders and broader sphere of influence.
It is worth mentioning that the preface of Putin’s original, now replaced, 2000 doctrine indicated that it was “a document of a transition period, the period of establishing a democratic state.” It also said the doctrine had “a defensive character.” Interestingly, the 2010 doctrine, in comparison, does not mention democracy nor the democratic structure of the Russian state and there is no mention whatsoever of the doctrine’s defensive character. It is not specified if Russia considers such a democratic state to already have been established or if the idea of making a democratic state is no longer relevant — or has been abandoned.
The 2010 doctrine ends with the following quote:
The provisions of the Military Doctrine may be further defined as the nature of dangers, threats and tasks related to ensuring military security and defense change, as well as in light of the broader development of the Russian Federation.
Such a catch-all clause allows for the rapid mobilization of Russian armed forces and indicates the latitude Russian decisionmakers have to implement dynamic and flexible policies in response to situations like the one now witnessed in the Crimea.
Breaking days of silence since his forces entered Ukraine’s Crimea last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied in a news conference on Tuesday that the soldiers there were Russian. The uniformed troops, who carried no national insignia but spoke Russian and drove vehicles with Russian license plates, were “local self-defense forces,” he claimed.
“As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need but such a possibility exists,” said the Russian leader. “It would naturally be the last resort.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea last week, there has been no shortage of advice from Western commentators who believe the whole enterprise is a catastrophic mistake on the part of President Vladimir Putin.
Newsweek‘s Owen Matthews believes the Russian leader “has come to believe his own propaganda — that he is has really succeeded in resurrecting the power of the Soviet Union.”
The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius also sees Russia’s invasion of the Crimea as springing “from a deeper misjudgment about the reversibility of the process that led to the breakup of Soviet Union in 1991.” Putin’s “revanchist” strategy moves the country closer to “corrupt Oriental despotism,” he writes, whereas Russia can only reverse its alleged “demographic and political trap” by moving closer to the West.
The demographic decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was actually halted in 2009 when the Russian population grow for the first time in fifteen years. As for its “political trap,” if that means Russia’s lack of democratic traditions, it is difficult to see how more amicable ties with the West would enable it to break out of that.
Russian public opinion does not seem altogether appalled by the notion that one man might just have plunged Europe in its worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Rather, many Russians approve of Putin’s invasion of the Crimea which they consider an appropriate response to an imagined Western conspiracy to snitch the Ukraine from their sphere of influence. Russia’s paranoia, which goes a long way toward explaining why the country still has something resembling “Oriental despotism” in the twenty-first century, will not simply fade away when it moves into the Western sphere — assuming Western countries even want it there.
However misguided Matthews and Ignatius might believe Putin’s motives to be, neither does actually explain how invading the Crimea can objectively be considered to have been a mistake.
Mary Mycio makes a far more compelling argument in Slate where she explains how Russia would struggle to keep an independent Crimea float. The peninsula is now heavily dependent on electricity, food and water from Ukraine.
That’s why the Crimea is even a part of Ukraine. Don’t believe that myth about the peninsula being a “gift” from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. For laughs, people often add that he did it when he was drunk. That story was actually concocted during the early 1990s when Russia first started making mischief with pro-Russian separatism.
If Putin intends to annex the Crimea or install a client government there, Mycio’s criticisms will make sense. But as Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, points out as his blog, there is also the possibility that Putin has occupied the peninsula to put pressure on the new authorities in Kiev. He writes, “there is still scope for a political resolution, one that will allow Putin to pull the boys back, claim victory over a cowed Kiev and a handwringing West and await the next well meaning invitation to a ‘reset’ of East-West relations.”
It is too soon to tell whether the Crimean incursion was a mistake for Russia or not. Whoever claims to know at this point is probably not actually making the argument that Putin was in error but that his behavior is morally reprehensible — which is not the same thing as being mistaken.
Russia’s parliament on Saturday gave President Vladimir Putin permission to invade Ukraine where thousands of his troops appeared to have already seized the Crimea, the peninsula that headquarters Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Latvia and Lithuania, both former Soviet republics, called for emergency NATO consultations to discuss what looks to be the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War ended in 1991. Such an emergency council has only been called three times before, most recently in 2012 after Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet.
Gunmen took control of two airports in Ukraine’s Crimea region on Friday when ousted president Viktor Yanukovich surfaced in Russia where he called upon the country’s former Soviet master to “use all means at its disposal to end the chaos and terror gripping Ukraine.”
“Russia cannot be indifferent, cannot be a bystander watching the fate of as close a partner as Ukraine,” Yanukovich told a news conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city close to Ukraine’s eastern border.